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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Is print still king? Has online made a move? Updating a controversial post

A year ago, in a Nieman Journalism Lab post that garnered 88 comments and still has viral life out there, I maintained that just three percent of newspaper content consumption happens online; the rest of it happens the old fashioned way, by people reading ink on dead trees. Given the continuing attention being paid to that conclusion (it was cited just last month by Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, in testimony to the Federal Trade Commission), let’s revisit the numbers and see whether anything has changed.

With updates or improved data on at least some of the numbers, the general conclusions still hold: U.S. newspapers have not pushed much of their audience to their websites, nor have they followed the migration of their readership to the web. Their combined print and online readership metrics, whether measured in pageviews or in time spent, show that there’s been significant attrition since last year in the total audience for newspaper content, and that the fraction of that audience consuming newspaper content online remains in the low-to-mid single digits.

Here’s how I arrived at the numbers this year (to follow this more closely, or check my math, you can view my worksheet here):

Point of comparison: Pageviews

First, a comparison of pageviews in print and pageviews online. In print, I projected pageviews for newspaper content by taking the 2008 paid circulation reported by the Newspaper Association of America, adjusting it by the average of the two six-month circulation loss figures reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (March, September), and multiplying the resulting 2009 circulation by 2.128 readers per copy for weekdays and 2.477 for Sundays. (This is a 2007 Scarborough Research (PDF link) number I used last year also, but readers per copy has been a very consistent figure with little variation for decades.) This yielded total readership for weekdays and Sundays. I then made the same (discussable) assumption as last year: that the average reader of a newspaper issue looks at 24 pages, which means there is a total of 70.602 billion printed newspaper pageviews per month. That’s down almost 19 percent from last year’s 87.1 billion pages viewed. To be fair, my audience numbers last year were also based on that 2007 Scarborough data, so that’s really a two-year decline. (Jim Conaghan, research director at the NAA, tells me they have no data on the number of printed pages readers look at on average, and that there is no update to the 2007 readers-per-copy study.)

For online pageviews, NAA offers a precise number based on research by Nielsen Online. Nielsen’s methodology changed in June 2009, so I’ve used the average of the nine months from June 2009 to February 2010, which was 3.382 billion online newspaper site pageviews per month. So for print and online combined, we have a total of 73.985 billion pageviews (versus 90.3 billion last year). In other words, as measured in pageviews, 95.43 percent of total readership for newspaper content was in print; 4.57 percent of it was online. So while it appears that the online fraction has grown from 3.5 percent in the previous analysis, the bad news is that the total content exposure has dropped by about one fifth.

Point of comparison: Time on site

Some commenters to last year’s post maintained that print and online pageviews weren’t comparable. And certainly, the current wisdom says that pageviews and unique visitors don’t count nearly as much as “engagement” as measured by time spent on site as well as interaction with content. So, as I did last year, let’s look at time spent — both in print and online, print engagement versus online engagement with the newspaper content:

For the print side of the ledger, I began with the readership counts derived as above, and assumed average time spent with printed newspapers to be 25 minutes on weekdays and 35 minutes on Sundays. Now, this assumption got considerable comment flak last year, and no doubt will have its doubters this year. For those who say “I don’t know anybody who reads a newspaper at all, so how can the average be 25 minutes?” let me say that more than 40 million newspapers are still sold every day and someone is reading them, whether you know them or not. Anecdotally, half the people I see at Amy’s in Brattleboro are spending more time that that just with the New York Times. But let’s avoid the anecdotal evidence — here’s (PDF link) some U.S. Statistical Abstract data on time spent with various media, sourced from Veronis Suhler. It claims that the average person in 2009 spent 159 hours a year with newspapers (including newspaper websites), which is 26.1 minutes a day. While this tends to support the controversial pass-along factor, it’s for the average (adult) person. Since only about half the population actually reads printed newspapers (on average per day), that would mean newspaper readers spend an average of 52 minutes a day — which just strikes me as way too high. So I’m going to stick with the happy medium of 25 minutes weekdays and 35 on Sundays until someone can improve that data. (As an additional data point: According an NAA print newspaper “engagement” study (PDF link) presented a few years ago, on weekdays 45 percent of readers spent more than 30 minutes, 34 percent between 16 and 30 minutes, 21 percent under 15 minutes. Higher times were reported for Sunday editions.)

That yields total time spent with printed newspapers of 78.471 billion minutes per month. The online side is easy: averaging the last 9 months of NAA data, we get time spent at newspaper websites of 2.535 billion minutes per month. And combining print and online time spent, we have a total of 81.006 billion minutes per month spent with newspaper content. The engagement measure, therefore, says that 96.87 percent of time spent with newspaper content was in print; 3.13 percent of time spent was online. This is almost exactly the same as last year, when I found that 3.0 percent of time spent was online. But printed newspapers have lost a big chunk of total engagement as well: this year’s numbers are down 18.9 percent from last year’s analysis, which, again, really is a two-year drop of about one-fifth, with the loss occurring on the print side.

The conclusion that the overwhelming share of newspapers’ audience remains on the print side of the ledger is supported by Scarborough’s 2008 ratings of what it called the “Integrated Newspaper Audience” (PDF link) in selected markets. Measuring the cumulative 5-day audience rather than daily averages, that data showed that the incremental audience at newspaper websites added only a few percentage points to their print reach.

NAA and Nielsen are clear that their pageviews and time-spent stats since June 2009 can’t be compared with earlier months because of methodology changes, so I’ll refrain from doing that; but clearly the print/online audience split was enormously skewed last year and remains so — and most importantly, the online side is not growing. Back in June, NAA reported 3.469 billion pageviews and 2.701 billion minutes spent; in January (to avoid the short month of February), there were 3.452 billion pageviews and 2.485 billion minutes spent. Time spent per unique visitor has fallen gradually from 38:24 minutes in June to 33:09 minutes in January. In other words, while newspapers are losing readership on the print side, that disappearing audience is not following them online; at best, the online audience for newspaper content is static.

The purpose of this analysis is not to compare all “offline” news consumption with all online news consumption; it is to dissect the newspaper content audience. But as several commenters noted last year, this really means that as the audience moves online, it is getting most of its news from non-newspaper sites.

Beyond examining the split between readers of printed and online newspaper content, I also noted in another post last year that newspaper websites attracted less than one percent of all U.S. web traffic — 0.69 percent of pageviews and 0.56 percent of time spent, to be precise, in June 2009. Updating those stats with February 2010 Nielsen Online data (also detailed in the spreadsheet linked above), over the last nine months newspapers have actually lost share in both pageviews and time spent: pageview share dropped to 0.63 percent, and time spent dropped to 0.50 percent of total web traffic.

Meanwhile at newspapers, much effort and much dialogue continues to focus on getting readers to pay for content and battling aggregators — energy that might better be spent figuring out how not to lose the sizeable remaining audience for newspaper content, not by “protecting print” but by keeping the current print readers in the fold as they, too, gradually migrate to reading news online.

                                   
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  • http://TruffleMedia.com john blue

    Your final part about “audience moves online, it is getting most of its news from non-newspaper sites.” raises the question: What is a newspaper?

    The very word (“newspaper”) ties it to a physical medium in an industry that is in search of a new model for delivery and use. What do you call a web site that has no paper component yet is of the same caliber as the paper cousin? “News feed”, “news app”, and “news aggregator” as terms evolve from this need to change the medium yet keep the core part of what is being delivered.

    The media on (in?) which information aggregation and distribution occur is in flux. The paper part is so ingrained in our behavior and life style that it is hard to separate it out. Do we care about the media it self? When is the point in time where we look back, saying “Paper? Wow, I haven’t heard that in a while.”

    Or maybe the term “newspaper” is with us forever. If so, the business of newspapers still has to separate out the “paper” part of the word and bring news aggregation, delivery, and media that we can easily use.

    Thanks again for the details and analysis. Very helpful.
    John Blue
    Truffle Media Networks
    Ag Media You Can Use

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    I agree the media, or platforms, are in flux, and that’s why the best advice for news organizations is to develop content on a platform-independent basis, while operating essentially separate publishing businesses for the various distribution channels available to them, including print. But most newspaper companies have failed to do that. They shouldn’t “care about the media itself,” but they do — hence this analysis.

  • http://albertsun.info albert

    I don’t know how the studies estimating readers per copy, or number of stories read per paper are conducted, but those numbers seem really unrealistic to me.

    I’d guess they’re probably using some sort of panel/survey methodology and extrapolating to the entire user base. Online, we’ve seen that different ways of measuring traffic or readership can lead to results that are wrong by orders of magnitude. Estimates for print readership are likely even more inaccurate.

    Anecdotally, (not very useful I know) the readers per copy in the dorm I live in looks like it could be less than 1. In the dorm I live in we don’t get mail delivery to our doors so instead any newspaper subscriptions go on a counter in the lobby. This counter is always piled high with days old newspapers that the subscribers they get sent to just haven’t bothered to pick up.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Hi Albert – as you recognize, the dorm picture is not a typical case. And that’s the kind of circulation that newspapers are increasingly dropping as unprofitable, which could actually drive up the readers per copy count. Trust me that in the heartland, in millions of homes, coffee shops and barber shops, there are still more than 2 readers for every copy distributed.

  • http://johnpgarrett.wordpress.com johnpgarrett

    I think this really helps answer part of the biggest question – can news survive on the web? I believe the online news model is broken and for more reasons than just online readership. Newspapers need to spend their time working on their core print product – making the print product more relevant, easier to access, and a better value. The bottom line is that it isn’t the “print” that’s bad – its the product. Look at the WSJ – its’ print product circ numbers are growing. Additionally (and written much less about), the for profit online news model is in real trouble because of low advertiser ROI.

  • http://drrosenberryspage.blogspot.com Jack Rosenberry

    It seems as if the news industry is putting nowhere near enough time or effort into figuring out how to get people who are now paying more than $200 a year for printed newspaper journalism to pay for comparable online journalism, and migrate the paying audience there.

    This is usually framed as the “paywall question.”

    I don’t think the issue whether paywalls will succeed is lack of willingness to pay for content. If it were, no one would pay for print, either, and as Martin points out, 44 million people a day still do that. The real issue is not that people won’t pay but that the weak content and crappy interface of most online news sites isn’t worth paying for.

    If the newspaper industry could create an online user experience that came very, very close to reading the newspaper on paper with online delivery of interesting story selection, decent design and good writing — i.e. an interface to the news worth paying for — then people probably could be induced to pay for it. Especially since the cost for paper, ink and equipment to deliver the information that way would go away, allowing it to be priced much lower. (See analysis at http://tinyurl.com/ygo2j7o )

  • http://www.themediawonk.com The Media Wonk

    You’re absolutely right that news organizations should concentrate on “develop[ing] content on a platform-independent basis, while operating essentially separate publishing businesses for the various distribution channels available to them.” Or even no publishing business for that matter.

    What’s missing today is a robust business-to-business marketplace for news content such as exists in other content-related industries. In cable television, for instance, the B2B market between content creators (i.e. networks) and content aggregators/distributors (cable operators), in the form of affiliate fees, generates roughly half the revenue pay-TV networks earn (the rest comes from advertising).

    If the tools existed to create an efficient B2B marketplace for news online, then it would make sense for news organizations to put their content behind a paywall. The content would still get widely distributed, packagers (i.e. publishers) would be able to monetize the content they buy as they see fit (including free to the reader), news organizations would not have to worry about the dilution of their monopoly ad rates.

  • http://thebatavian.com/ Howard Owens

    I left a comment this morning. Where is it?

  • http://www.pressthink.org Jay Rosen

    Here’s what I don’t understand, Martin. If you believe this analysis and think it actually represents the readership picture, why aren’t you arguing that newspapers should abandon their online presence? It’s not like they’re making a lot of money there and they’re certainly not finding new readers there, according to your numbers. So why be there at all?

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  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Howard: Could you re-comment? Something must have gone wrong there.

  • Kathryn Schneider

    “over the last nine months newspapers have actually lost share in both pageviews and time spent: pageview share dropped to 0.63 percent, and time spent dropped to 0.50 percent of total web traffic.”

    The question is why are online news web sites that are not based in traditional journalism (i.e, have a print version) getting an extraordinary number of hits? They take news from a variety of sources, not just content they create. In fact, a few sites have little or no original content. But they are making money.

    Newspapers need to aggregate content from its sister sites. I became bored with my hometown paper because the “breaking news” section meant a list of barely rewritten press releases about nothing. I’d rather spend time on a site reading a really, really great story about an interesting person from another state than a barely coherent blurb about a nondescript burglary with little information.

    And break the web template. Your pages are boring. There are few exceptions, but most are rather stagnant.

    Traditional newspapers should stop thinking traditionally. Everything they do — from the morning news meeting to night time copy desk — has been done the same way for decades.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Jay:
    I think I’m being pretty clear that while I “believe the analysis”, I don’t believe this situation is a Good Thing for newspapers, or something they should capitalize on by, for instances, abandoning their online presence.

    To focus exclusively on print is a dead end street, even if it’s still profitable. All the trend lines, which I’ve posted on many times, point to that: age cohort readership trends, readership per household, newspaper share of ad market, etc. So the choice to focus primarily on print is a choice to milk whatever profits are left until the business dries up.

    The forward-thinking choice of becoming web-centric is difficult too — historically very few industries in decline due to challenges from new technology have been able to reinvent themselves and carry on. What the analysis shows is that so far, collectively, newspapers have failed to make progress in the transition.

    I think some individual newspapers and groups still have a chance to succeed and become digital enterprises. The rest will probably be aggregated into two or three dinosaur firms that carry on until there’s no print business left.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Kathryn writes:
    “Traditional newspapers should stop thinking traditionally. Everything they do — from the morning news meeting to night time copy desk — has been done the same way for decades.”

    Exactly. My test for newspaper execs is this: Look around your building, and you’ll find that nearly all the jobs are organized around one central event — the moment the press is started. Most sales, pre-press and news jobs work toward that moment, most pressroom, mailroom, circulation and business office job proceed from that moment. So clearly, it’s a print-centric operation, and that’s the problem.

    A digitally-focused enterprise would be very different in all areas, and would have, at most, a print division or outsourced print operation to create and distribute printed niche products including a newspaper so long as that were profitable.

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  • http://www.pressthink.org Jay Rosen

    Become a digitally-focused enterprise so you can get that percentage up to 4, 5 maybe even 6 percent of total page views? I still don’t get it. There’s something missing here.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Jay, I would set far more aggressive goals. The measurement should be time spent/engagement. As you know, the average newspaper site visitor is spending less than a minute per day. The goal should be to multiply that by 10 or 15, which would mean moving closer to parity between print and online engagement with newspaper content. “Newspaper content” would then be “news organization” content, print just one of its distribution channels. Do you see an alternative strategic goal, or would you rather just have newspaper companies continue on their downward curve?

  • http://TruffleMedia.com john blue

    Going to “The measurement should be time spent/engagement.” means advertising sales methods, processes, psyche need to change too.

    What is a digital page with 1.3 minutes of “engagement” worth? Is a longer “engagement” worth more? What is the “ad unit” to sell defined as?

  • http://twitter.com/ToughLoveforX Michaelj

    Martin,

    Great round up, as it was the first time, but I think it’s a little upside down in conclusions.

    What I’m trying to point to is

    “by keeping the current print readers in the fold as they, too, gradually migrate to reading news online.”

    The way I read the numbers is that current print readers are not migrating to the newspaper websites for news. Yet they are stable for the Print version.

    As you might remember from a year ago, my little soapbox was that the value of the Print newspaper is sports, ads, TV listings and a thing to look at as they get from here to there. In my best snarky twitter voice, I may have said the going forward value of the newspaper, is not the news, it’s the paper.

    As far I as I can tell my story fits the data. Do you see something I’m missing?

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Michael,
    What should an industry do if its most loyal customers are dying off and it is having only marginal success replacing them among younger age groups? This has been the situation of newspapers for at least 60 years as a proliferation of other channels (TV, cable, internet, mobile) take their slice of the attention. Print newspaper reach has fallen below 40 percent of households; at the beginning of the decline (1945) it was essentially 100% with many households taking several papers. Yes, there is value in paper as such, and there may be 10, 20 or 30 years of viable business left for printed news as a niche product. Maybe that’s Jay’s point: you can focus on doing that, if that’s what you do best, and leave the rest to others. But that’s not a sustainable strategy because as I said, ultimately it’s a dead end street, and when that’s clear to readers, advertisers and employees, the death spiral will be pretty quick.

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    john blue:
    Indeed. I didn’t discuss advertising here, but on the ad side “engagement” needs to be deeper than just time spent. It needs to be more social, make connections and conversations between brands and people, and facilitate direct transactions (see Michael Skoler’s Groupon post here a few days back).

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  • http://twitter.com/ToughLoveforX Michaelj

    Martin,

    I think because the problem of newspapers is framed as a problem of journalism, there are new opportunities that may not be obvious.

    I take as given that newspapers are a mass media compared to the web that, while seemingly ubiquitous, is a niche media as of today. I also think it’s fair to say that even going forward, newspapers are a “push” media while the web is a “pull media.

    Consider also that the paper delivery system can be framed as an information infrastructure with a high cost of entry.

    The opportunity is regional economic development. I think this vid http://ilnk.me/2262 points to what I’m trying to say. The uber trend in the States is the move to develop vibrant regional economies.

    Newspapers, especially with the new tech that allows economic production of increasingly smaller and more focused print runs can be leveraged to monetize and earn profits from being part of that basic trend of the new normal.

    News in the sense of journalism has moved on. I think we agree. The most interesting model to me is Texas Tribune, which has an agreement to deliver their stories to local newsPapers for distribution in physical space.

    The sustainable going forward role for newspapers is to enable commerce in regions. A region can be framed as a “community of interest.” In that frame, schools are “communities of interest” in the service of education. Mass transit riders can be seen as “communities of interest” that are going from here to there and share some common world views.

    I would think that a newsPaper focused on the educational process could be well placed to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of textbooks in high school education. I bet that it would be relatively straightforward to support such an effort with ads from non profits and the social service arms of government – especially public health.

    I keep turning this over and over can can’t see why it wouldn’t work.

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  • Olivier

    Very good analysis indeed. I did the same kind of calculation for France, and I got the same results ! The other surprising thing is on the advertising side : when you compare ad revenue in print and on newspapers’web site to the number of pageviews (you could say eyeballs) you find that online is performing better than print ! More revenue per pageview or per minute spent !
    Thus, you definitely understand M.Murdoch is wrong : the problem is not advertising, it’s audience. If newspapers had a bigger audience, they would have more revenue. As simple as 1+1=2. If newspapers could gather the same time spent online than in print, they would get more money. The big bug is : though it’s free, people don’t consume. Come on Rupert, who will pay for a product that almost nobody wants when it’s free ?
    But why is it so ?
    First, people never paid for information when buying a newspaper. They paid for the paper pulp, the delivery, they paid for the 26 good minutes they were going to experience, they paid for the feeling of belonging to their community, they paid to have something to talk about with other people in their community. The death of newspapers began in the 50′s with free information, entertainment, social relationship and community feeling on TVs and radios. In Europe, it began in the 60′s.
    The fact is, on the web, you already paid your FAI for the support and the delivery, you can experience, for free, endless hours of good entertainment, interesting and personnalized content, you can belong to your comunity and engage conversation with no limit. Why do you need to go to a news site ?
    I don’t believe all news sites are so bad. Some are good. People just don’t need them any more.
    This may be a problem for democracy. Maybe not But for sure, it is a deadly problem for newspapers !

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